Monday, October 16, 2017

What can happen when nothing is planned


It's amazing what can happen when plans fall away. Yesterday at the nursing home where I work, one of the residents wanted me to bring my guitar to hear room to sing. It turned out that I had forgotten to bring my guitar to work but I said we could sing without the guitar. She seemed skeptical about this idea but as we found out, I think it allowed more to happen.

When I came to her room for our music session, I suggested we could sing her favorite song, "Amazing Grace." I wasn't sure if she would do it without the guitar. Sometimes I think having a guitar is like a prop that allows people to open up more. Without it, there is no room to hide.

So when she started to sing with such conviction and gusto - I joined her and we had a great time. After we finished singing "Amazing Grace," she told me she had a CD of her favorite songs. It took some time to get the CD player working but once we did,  I loved listening with her.

We sang along to, "You Are My Sunshine," "I'll Fly Away," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken, " and others. Listening to the CD together brought back such fond memories of  when I was in high school and friends and I would spend a whole afternoon listening to albums. This was the thing to do! A friend would call and say, "I just got a new Jimi Hendrix album" and I'd say, "I'll be right over." and we'd listen to that album over and over again.

Do people listen to music together like that anymore? I loved how LPs (stands for "long playing" records) were a series of songs that told a story. LPs like Moody Blues, "Days of Future Passed," Carole King's, "Tapestry, " Stevie Wonder's, "Talking Book." The A side was one part of the story and the B side another. I loved spending time thinking about what the overall message was. Many LPs then had a theme. Now I feel that CDs are more of a collection of separate songs by an artist, rather than a connecting story.

Anyway, this was a great memory for me and I loved that the fact that I forgot my guitar led to an even more interesting and fun music session with Mrs. G__. I learned more about the kind of music she likes for next time when I do bring my guitar.

Today's photo is of a fall image that I love. I love the leaves and pine cones and colors all around me.
How are you doing out there? Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Heart and Soul

Sometimes I am surprised by their openness to me. It is as if having my guitar in hand is like having a key to their secret garden they let me into. We enter into a very private place together as we share important memories from the soundtrack of their lives. 

I'm thinking of Thelma (not her real name) and how she transformed from a appearing to be very quiet and untrusting to completely open and singing with the most heart felt abandon.  When I saw a picture of Jesus on her wall, I decided to sing, "Amazing Grace" and she said it was her favorite song. She sang loudly and with the conviction of a professional singer even though she insisted after I complimented her, "I can't sing, I just love music!." Her love for music was so apparent. She went from being listless and detached when I entered the room to vibrant and joyous as we sang through some of her favorite songs. 

Next I visited Johnny who was  having a birthday. He seemed a little down (I suppose being in a nursing home is not the most uplifting place to be on one's birthday) and he mentioned he liked "dark" music. I immediately thought of the song, "House of the Rising Sun." As soon as I started to sing this, I could see the song struck a deep chord inside him. He closed his eyes and swayed to the music. He had an expression of being in a  very deep and private place. It led us to a conversation about how life can change for some people by being in the wrong place at the wrong time or hanging out with the wrong crowd. (which is what "House of the Rising Sun" is about). He was so open and vulnerable with me that it was such a privilege to feel he trusted me as he would a close friend, even though I had just met him. 

Last night I had another very uplifting session with Shirley, an elderly woman with dementia. I have known her now for over 4 years and only recently she started opening up to me.  When I started to see songs that she recognized and hummed along with, I made a point to play more from the same genre and era in hopes to connect more with her. It turns out we spent nearly one hour with me playing the guitar and her singing along songs from, "Clementine," "Over the Rainbow," "You Are My Sunshine," and her favorite one that made her laugh was, "Heart and Soul." Many of you would not recognize the lyrics but if you ever took piano lessons, this would be very familiar to you. Shirley loved this song so much we must have sang and played it over a dozen times. This is amazing to me because if I talk to her, she will look down and will not engage. When she is not sitting down, she roams the halls looking down and rarely speaks or engages with anyone. But last night she sang and laughed and her whole demeanor was so light and happy. I cannot stop thinking of her and the fun we had together. I got up this morning and wrote down the melodies to 7 more songs to play for her next time. 

Music is so much more than "entertainment." It is a powerfully healing and connecting force. It is a bridge to bring back joy to those who lives seem devoid of it most of the time. It is my work and I love it. Thank you for reading!  


The picture above is one I took at the park nearby while I stood in a butterfly bush snapping away. It can be hard to photograph a butterfly because they are never still very long. How fitting, I think, as happiness can also be something that does not stay if you try to catch it. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Here Comes the Sun and I say, "It's alright!"

This past month I have been doing more traveling around Virginia to other assisted living centers. As a result, I have met a lot of new people and seen a lot of very beautiful new sights. Pictured above is a scene I pulled off the road to capture in Bedford county (90 miles outside of Charlottesville). The place I went to was located a few miles off a dirt road way up on a hill. Since I live in the city, it is such a treat for me to experience this beauty.

Yesterday was a special music session for me. I was playing at a nursing home in the skilled nursing area where there are people there for rehab. Many of them are there for just a few weeks or months. This means that I meet people in what could be one of their darkest times. They are away from home for an extended and sometimes unkown period of time and forced to live among strangers.

When I asked the group if there were any who were having a birthday soon to sing to them, a woman I've never seen there before spoke up. She was seated in a wheelchair and both of her legs were bandaged. In other places where the bandages did not cover, there were open wounds and she looked to be in a lot of discomfort. As soon as she began to talk, she started to cry. "It is my birthday next week and it's going to be the worst birthday I've ever had."  She apologized as she continued to cry but I assured her I understood and it was good to cry, that is how we heal.

We started talking then and sharing about music and she said she always loved The Beatles. I got the idea then to play for her their song, "Here Comes the Sun."  I first played it as an instrumental without the lyrics and I could see the woman listening and as she stopped crying. Then when I sang,

"Here comes the sun, little darling
here comes the sun and I say
It's alright...."

Her eyes lit up and she smiled and started to sing along with me.

"Little darling, it's been a long, cold lonely winter
little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun... "

I could see this song struck a comforting chord with her and this led to a series of other songs that helped to uplift her spirits. We sang, "Stand by Me"

"If the sky you look upon, should crumble and fall
and the mountains should tumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry
no I won't shed a tear
just as long as you stand, stand by me. "

We sang, "My Girl."

"I've got sunshine, on a cloudy day... "

By the time I left, the woman who was crying in despair was laughing and joyful. Music can do that. It can ease our burdens and remind us that there is still beauty and hope and joy. The world is still a beautiful place. It was a gift to me to be with her in her time of need. We've all been there and I was glad that the songs gave us a chance to share some hopeful moments. Peace to you all and thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

When wanderers awaken


The other night I had an extraordinary experience as I was playing calming music for residents in a nursing home. The ones I play for have dementia and early evening after dinner can be a time of confusion for them. I usually sit playing my guitar as they drift off in their chairs while the nurses tend to their nightly meds.

There is one woman who is always pacing the halls. She usually looks down and never makes eye contact with me. In the 4 years I have gone there, she has never spoken or acknowledged the music. The other night, all of this changed.

It was while I was playing, "Over the Rainbow" when this same woman who paced and never spoke began to sing along. She smiled as she sang softly and she seemed so happy. She came over by me and said, "That is so beautiful! You are really, really good!"  While I had her attention, I played some others I thought she would know. Elvis was a big hit too. I played, "Can't Help Falling In Love, " and "Love me Tender" while she hummed along. She also loved, "Moon River," and "Unchained Melody," and "Edleweiss." She stood right next to me and hummed and laughed and kept telling me how much she loved it.

I was amazed to see this woman who I only saw wander in silence come to life. The joy in her face sparked memories of happy times and brought her out of her shell. Now I am motivated to learn more songs of the same genre and era to see how she responds next time.

The photo above was taken at the VSA (therapeutic parks and recreation) concert last April. Photo credit goes to Norman Carter. I like how I look like I am laughing to myself. I do remember it was a very good concert and such happiness was in the room that day. I'm glad Norm caught me feeling that way. It's how I feel when I play the guitar! Thanks for coming by and reading.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

You're Here Not By Chance


Every Wednesday night I go down the street to sing for some nursing home residents.  I find them all sitting in the hallway after dinner. I  have my guitar strapped on as I stroll the up and down the hall singing to them all.  I've been going there now for 7 years. Over the years I have seen many residents come and go (they are all quite ill by the time they take up residence here).  Most of the staff has been there longer than me but I've also seen a lot of them come and go too.

Even so, there have been times when my presence there seemed to go unnoticed. A Wednesday would come and I'd make my rounds seemingly invisible and go back home. At times when I'd be away or missed due to being sick, no one ever remarked on my absence.

All of this changed recently, however.  For I had missed a week due to not feeling well and one of the nurses came up and said, "Where were you last week? They were all waiting for you." Hm. I had never felt that way there before, seemed no one noticed me much. But it was true.

Last night I showed up and a man was waiting by the door. As soon as I got close enough, he punched in the code to unlock the door.  I thought he was going somewhere and asked, "Where are you off to?" But he said he was waiting for to help me in and that everyone was lined up to hear me.

Sure enough, they were. All 15 or so of them were lined up outside of the nursing station waiting for the music. As soon as I started singing, one of the nurses came and started singing and dancing and conducting along with me. The residents smiled and seemed to really enjoy it.

The above picture is something one of them took out of their purses and asked me to read. You can see it is very old and tattered and wrapped in plastic for safe keeping. I was touched by her saving this and feeling so much a part of their lives there.

 I was wrong that I was not noticed. Jt may be true that some people due to illness are unable to show or acknowledge what I bring but they do notice. It's good to be reminded of that at times.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Rewrite your endings


Someone once told me, "Everyone needs a path for growth." For some it is a relationship, for others it's their work and for me it is music. I learn so much about life from my music studies and practice. Here's what happened to me this past week.

I have a classical guitar piece I learned nearly 30 years ago that I play each day as a warm up. It's not a piece I'd ever perform in a concert but it is one I want to keep in my repertoire. Recently, I developed a memory block on the ending of the piece. Though I can hear it in my head, my hands do not remember how to play it. So, I was faced with the option of giving up on the piece (I'd never perform it anyway), or getting the music out and spending time re-learning it or I could improvise a new ending!  I went with the last option and today I had so much fun with it!

For me music is not only a source of growth and self discovery, it is also a source of joy. Today I played this piece (Weiss Prelude in Em) over and over and gave it a new ending each time.  It made me laugh to do this. I have to admit, I do prefer the "real" ending that S. L. Weiss composed but making up a new ending opened up new possibilities for me. It made me see that I don't have to do what someone else wrote down, I don't have to "color in the lines" or think in their box. I am free do see this piece of music as a recipe where I can add my own spices and flavors and herbs and make it my own.   It is such a freeing and empowering feeling.

It makes a good metaphor for my life too. If I see this old piece of music like an old story from my life and one that I have told the same way over and over --am I not free to give the story a new perspective, a new ending?   I know that endings of stories generally have a resolution or some kind of impact. What if we didn't keep the same ending? What if we improvised as I did and let the music take me to a new place?

I invite you to try this in your art or writing or music or your life. See where it takes you. It may make you laugh!

The picture above is from a gazebo in a park near where I live. I like to go there and let my mind wander. In fact, that's where I am heading now. Have fun rewriting your endings! :)

Monday, May 8, 2017

What I learned from Pachelbel Canon in D


Everyone is familiar with this beautiful piece "Pachelbel Canon in D" from the baroque era. I was hired to play this piece for a wedding recently and here's what I learned from studying and practicing this piece over six months.

Firstly, I see that musical lessons run parallel to life's lessons. For instance, if you have a problem with rushing through your day, chances are good you tend to rush the tempo in a given piece. I have that problem somewhat. Not because I am trying to get through a piece quickly but because I am so eager to show the listener how beautiful the next passage is. With a piece like Pachelbel Canon though, the timing must flow slowly with clarity and precision. I worked with a metronome for months to train myself to play the piece in a very steady, precise rhythm.

I learned a lot about bringing my own colors and musical phrases into the piece too. I have to admit, coming up with my own arrangement that would honor the tradition of the piece and also have my own unique touch was pretty challenging. I liken it to having to wear a beige colored outfit --something plain which would not stand out in a crowd. That was where my Pachelbel Canon was heading for a few months. It was ok but it was not "me."  I knew that I could wear a colorful sash or scarf to bring in my own colors while respecting the required dress code. To find my own colors and voice I turned to other guitarists who are known for never playing anything in a boring or redundant way. Here is Sungha Jung playing Pachelbel Canon. 

From him I got the idea to create my own introduction before the well known opening chordal passage and then I used the melodic idea in the outro/ending of the piece. That helped shape my vision of the piece to be more "me." I then asked myself, "How would You play this piece?" I am not really known for playing baroque music and since it was for a wedding, I needed the piece to sound like what others expected it to sound like. So it was a challenge to me to put in elements of my own guitar riffs and embellishments.


Not only that, but the church was very small and the bridal procession would only last about 40 seconds. I had to somehow find a way to condense the piece that would have all the known elements in it in a short time (usually this piece takes 2-4 minutes to play through).

What aided me in my conception of the piece was that I saw these pictures of a beautiful stained glass cabin by Neile Coooper from this webpage. Then I imagined the playing of Pachelbel Canon would be like entering a stained glass castle. Each level would become more ornate and intricate as the piece of music progressed.


I have posted some of the pictures of the stained glass cabin throughout, so you get an idea. All of these ideas helped to shape my own Pachelbel Canon in D that I enjoyed playing very much. 

My musical lessons led to life lessons. To move through my day unhurried. To express myself with simplicity and clarity. To know what I want and have a vision and set out to achieve that. 
To look for the beauty in life and stay with that vision no matter what chaos is going on in the world around me. 

I'd say that's quite a lot to learn from a piece of music. What do you learn from this piece?